On January 27, 2014 in New York City, the world lost a unique and special artist, Pete Seeger. From 1939 until his demise at the ripe old age of ninety-four in 2014, he was a prolific singer/songwriter and a tireless supporter of civil rights, counter culture, environmental causes and international disarmament.
Seeger enjoyed one of the longest active careers in music; spanning an astounding seventy-five years. By the 1940s, his music was already a staple of American radio. By the early 1950s, Seeger had already enjoyed a string of internationally-successful hits and sold millions of records as a founding member of the American folk music quartet The Weavers.
Based in the Greenwich Village area of New York City, The Weavers performed traditional folk songs that spanned the globe. In addition to traditional folk, the quartet also performed American ballads, blues, gospel, "labor" songs and even children's songs. Their passionate, full-barreled performances, led by Seeger's expressive, searing banjo, paved the way for the emergence of folk music as a widespread, commercially successful genre for the first time in its history.
From this "folk boom" emerged such legendary artists as Fred Neil, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Kingston Trio and a plethora of other seminal artists; all of whom directly sighting Seeger as a major influence to their music. In homage to Seeger, they recorded his songs, scoring success with "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)", "Turn! Turn! Turn!", "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and countless other Seeger-penned classics that helped to introduce his music to an even wider audience of listeners.
As close to Seeger's heart as music was, his lifelong concern over environmental and social issues was held equally dear. During the many years of his long and prolific career, Pete Seeger both created and participated in a number of high profile events, concerts and television specials which sought to bring public attention to and rectify various social and environmental issues.
Singer/songwriter and activist Mark 'Silent Bear' Holtzman met Seeger through their work together on such an event: a benefit concert for Native American political prisoner, Leonard Peltier. Seeger and Peltier had been long-time friends and fellow activists from the civil rights days of the 1960s, and right up until his demise this year, Seeger never ceased his efforts to obtain a parole for Peltier.
This month, I once again had the pleasure of sitting down over coffee with my dear friend, Mark "Silent Bear." As we sat together talking, we shared our memories of a true American icon and musical prophet, Pete Seeger. At my request, Mark graciously agreed to share his cherished memories and intimate, candid insights into that "national treasure and a one of a kind human being" we were honored to know, Pete Seeger:
I'm guessing that most of you now have heard of the passing of national treasure and a one of a kind human being: Pete Seeger. I was lucky and honored to get to know Pete through our work on a benefit concert for Native American political prisoner, Leonard Peltier. Around the time of his 90th birthday celebration, I reached out to some folks, and I was able to reunite Pete and Leonard, who were old friends from the civil rights days. When Leonard heard of Pete's 90th birthday, he chose to honor him by giving him the gift of a beautiful original oil painting that he painted in prison. Pete in turn, wrote a letter to the parole board in support of parole for Leonard. When parole was denied, I wrote Pete again, proposing a concert in support . It was a great joy when he wrote me back saying that he was interested!
Thus started a three year process of intense trials and tribulations. The idea of a concert for Leonard sounded good on paper, but proved to be quite challenging to actually get it to happen. When it seemed like the idea might finally unravel, I met with Pete in a private meeting in a tipi during the annual Clearwater Revival Festival, that Pete and his wife Toshi started in support of cleaning up the Hudson River. It was in the middle of the "activist area," where folks are able to set up booths to bring attention to relevant causes. Anything from veterans against war, anti -fracking, Cleaning up the River, Political Prisoners, Leonard Peltier etc...are represented.
In this meeting, Pete was the first person to read a statement that Leonard Peltier wrote to be shared during the festival. Tears literally streamed down his eyes, as Leonard spoke of their own environmental struggles on the Turtle Mountain reservation, fighting the greed of the developers. So we concluded with a rekindling of the idea of the concert for Leonard and a promise from my end that the concert would happen before his next birthday.
I'm happy to say that the concert did happen at the Beacon Theatre in N.Y.C. on Dec. 14th, 2012. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/jackson-browne-and-common-unite-to-bring-leonard-peltier-home-20121215
To rewind a little bit, one of the highlights of my life/career happened a little earlier, when I came to N.Y for one of the early planning meetings for the concert. Pete and I had been corresponding by letters and phone. In one of these letters, I shared some new lyrics that I wrote to his old anti-Vietnam war classic, "Bring em Home" called "Bring HIM Home", for Leonard. Pete really liked the lyrics, so the day after this meeting he invited me up to his home in Beacon, N.Y to work on a arrangement of the song to be performed at the concert.
It was almost surreal, as Pete himself picked me up at the Cold Springs stop on the Hudson River line. It was even more special as we drove up the winding dirt road to the mythical Seeger home: a home that he built with his own hands that was immortalized in many films and interviews. When inside, I was honored to meet his wife Toshi, his daughter Tinya and one of his grand daughters. Then we sat down by the wood stove and got to working on some music. After a little work, I was invited to join the family for a meal. When I first met Pete, he was peeling an orange, and he went on to speak of his love of fruit and how someone told him that the way to good health was to "eat a lot of fruit." So when I brought up a big platter of mixed fruit as my contribution, I got a big smile and thanks from Pete and Toshi's approval as well.
After the meal came a time of relaxing and swapping stories. I sat mesmerized. What a wealth of experience. What a keen mind. I was almost jarred from a trance when his daughter interjected, " You know, he could go on like this all day ( telling stories) . We should look up the train schedule and figure out the next train back to N.Y.C". I could see where she was coming from in that she probably heard a lot of these stories daily, but I was soaking up the "manna," the true folk Gospel! I didn't want it to end so quickly.
One of the stories was about how Woody Guthrie taught him how to hustle traveling money by playing songs in saloons for quarters. I could have sat there all day and listened. Well, eventually I relented and Pete brought me back to the train station with a signed copy of his book, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," in hand to read on the train ride back home. We hugged goodbye, and I was on my way.
Thankfully, there were other such meetings. The last one manifested in a recording session in his living room, in which Pete added some tracks to my upcoming CD, "The Green Lion." I'm happy to say that this project is soon to be released. So his music and Spirit will live on in yet another preservation. Stay tuned for an official announcement.
As I was saying, the concert finally took place, and Pete invited me up to perform our collaboration together. Here is a youtube clip that was thankfully captured by an audience member:
To sum up, As I've said before, the work I did with Pete was amongst the highlights of my life. These are memories I will truly treasure . I've spent the last few days on an emotional roller coaster and in reverent prayer. I'm currently working on planning a local "sing- out," in his honor. As he loved to say, "It is the many small things that will change/save the world." He was a true champion of the, "Think globally, act locally," philosophy. So this tribute will come to it's true fruition as we open our hearts in song and share in the ineffable. One of my favorite songs of his is the sublime, "Quite Early Morning:"
He always encouraged us songwriters to take an old melody and do something new with it, or to "add a verse." It's something that he said that his father referred to as, "the folk process." So I did just this and added my own verse to be sung at the end of," Quite Early Morning." He liked it. He said it "sang well." I'll be singing it.
"Old Pete Seeger. Well he wrote this song.
So we'd all remember, to pass it on.
And sing this song, we all sing together
and forge a bond. That no man can sever.
And Sing this song, we all sing together
and forge a bond, that no man can sever."
I love you Pete. "KEEP ON!" THANK YOU! -Silent Bear 3/20/14
P.S- Here is a radio show that I came across online, that features some other tributes: